OK, let’s start with a little quiz. Ten famous Gabriels? There’s the angel, known for appearing to a certain woman in Nazareth, and being played by the blonde girl in primary school Nativity plays (I suppose of the predominantly male parts available, an angel is closer to androgynous than a Wise MAN…) Erm… and then…
So, I study Latin American literature. Which Gabriel do I mean? My Gabriel, who hogs a reasonable proportion of my shelf, and whose work I have a tendency to assume everyone has read, because, well, I have. And if I say ‘Cien años’ to you, you should just know what I’m waffling on about. Because if you’ve known me long enough, I’ll have made you read it anyway!
I don’t even know how I came across Gabriel (OK, I’ll be kind, in case you haven’t guessed already, and fill you in: it’s Gabriel García Márquez that I’m waffling on about!). I vaguely remember being recommended one of his books (possibly Love in the Time of Cholera, but we’ll get to that in a minute), and then there was definitely the phase where I read everything I could get my hands on in preparation for my Oxford interviews (to the extent that I can still remember the one with the mayor and the dentist and the one with the sun that gets shot by Rebecca (sorry, getting ahead of myself again!) and the symbolism of the stifling heat and the almond trees. I’d never been to South America, and other than a doomed family holiday to Cuba when I was very young (I knew neither Che Guevara nor Ernest Hemingway, making it rather a cultural failure. I hadn’t even read Our Man in Havana!), Europe was about the limit of my horizons. And so GGM’s world was exciting and amazing and new and nothing like the Musketeers (which I also loved, and still do: that is perhaps my formative French reading experience, and explains why I spent six months traipsing around castles). And I like to think he got me into Oxford, too, so bonus points for him for that.
The thing is, when you read a lot, people have a tendency to ask what your favourite book is. I don’t know whether they think you have no other facets to your personality (I don’t actually do the real world, you know…) or if in fact they’re expecting some fascinating insight. The problem is (or rather, the problems…) that when you rattle through four or five books a week, you really remember them. And then you analyse them to shreds, which kind of takes the enjoyment out of the whole thing. And you can’t read trashy rubbish because it just annoys you. And there are simply too many to choose from. All of this explains the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look I tend to greet said question with. So although I might mumble ‘something by García Márquez’, really I’d just be hoping that you’d change the subject.
I have never read a García Márquez book that I didn’t like. He has a tendency to be crude, his imagery can be obvious and he’s pretty sexist, but he’s also wonderfully witty and clever and his stories have a way of intertwining, so that characters that appear in one crop up in another, giving you the feeling of being in on an in-joke, which is just the best thing an author can do (in my humble opinion). That Rebecca? She’s in Cien Años too, so you read about her shooting someone and you know that she’s crazy, because you’ve read all about it. I love that GGM doesn’t pander to you either: if you haven’t read his other stuff, you won’t get the reference, and he doesn’t care, and he isn’t going to explain it to you.
Now, I try hard to appear serious with my reading tastes. I once spent a whole essay and a tutorial arguing against the existence of ‘women’s writing’ as a distinct genre. I do NOT like slushy romantic books. But if I had to pick one book, one wonderfully amazingly lovely story, what would it be? Not Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada. Nothing from Los Funerales de Mamá Grande. Not even Cien Años, fantastic as it is. No, it would be Love in the Time of Cholera.
Why? I don’t know. Because as a love story, it is about as masculine as it can get: girl breaks boy’s heart, marries someone else, so he decides to console himself by seducing every woman he comes across. And then at the end, she realises she was wrong and runs off with him. From a feminist standpoint, it’s just… uuurgh… But somehow you manage to forget that when you’re reading it, and I can only assume that this must be down to how García Márquez writes. For me, one of the most wonderful things about his work is that no-one gets happy endings and nothing turns out perfectly: he’s completely aware that we humans are a messed-up bunch, and that interacting with each other is rarely straightforward. People are forever rambling on about ‘magical realism’, but I don’t really know if that’s actually what’s so enticing about his writing. I prefer to think of it as the tragic stupidity of humanity. Maybe that’s a particularly Latin American thing, maybe not.
So if you haven’t read Love in the Time…, go and find it and snuggle down in a comfy chair with it. I challenge you not to weep, shout with frustration and laugh out loud, possibly all three at the same time. And then go and read everything else old Gabriel’s ever written too, and despair that you aren’t him, and that you’ll never quite have the words to say it as he does. I promise, it’s the only possible reaction.